With Friends Like Mayor Durkan, The Seattle Streetcar Needs No Enemies

Comments

1
To bad, she could have given it a name she desired.
2
I'm as rabid a transit supporter as anyone out there, and yet I'm ambivalent at best about Seattle's streetcar efforts. The sad reality is that the South Lake Union streetcar was conceived as a real-estate development booster for the benefit of Vulcan rather than as a transportation system serving the interests of the potential riders. The sad reality is that the First Hill streetcar was conceived as a make-good for Sound Transit's Central Link having to skip First Hill rather than as a viable mode and route serving the interests of its potential riders. And so we get these two painfully slow/choppy and infrequent lines that often beg the question, "Is it faster and more reliable to walk?"

Here's the problem, though. If the outcome of Mayor Durkan's injecting this inertia is to preserve the status quo, you wind up with the worst of all worlds. It's akin to King Solomon offering to split the baby in half, whereby in this case we keep the two streetcar lines split in half. Either bite the bullet and dismantle the two lines entirely and redirect resources to RapidRide and indirectly supporting Sound Transit light rail. Or bite the bullet and not only finally fill in the missing link between the two lines but improve the right-of-way and frequency on what you have already, however painful that may be.

Disclaimer: I'm happy to be corrected if I'm mischaracterizing the ways things are or the existing plans that are now on hold.
2
I thought the biggest fiscal problem with the streetcar was the vast initial underestimation of operating costs, not construction cost overruns. Did I just completely hallucinate a whole raft of news articles about that?
3
SDOT botched the sea wall budget, botched Pronto, botched construction on 23rd, botched the TIGER grant for the bridge over I-5 at Northgate, and now botched the budget on the street car.
4
@2 No, you are correct, that's exactly the problem with the streetcar project: it's going to cost a lot more than we thought, and a far fewer people will likely ride it than projected. David Cole doesn't care, he'd prefer to continue to throw money down this hole (while at the same time complaining that the city isn't spending more on housing).
5
I've always been a huge supporter of public transit. I grew up in NYC and moved here 25 years ago and have spent most of the intervening time wishing for and working to get more and better mass transit solutions. I Voted for the monorail every single time. I Voted for all the STs (even the one McGinn killed because it also added roads elsewhere). Ride the bus often, ride my bike more, take Bolt to PDX and then their light rail out to Hillsboro to see my mom on the regular, drive as little as possible and believe deeply that parking should not be free because it is still real estate.

All that said, street cars are THE WORST form of transit a city like ours can take on. They're slow because they're in traffic. They're expensive, because they're on rail, and they don't go anywhere that we don't already have or could have buses. I'm sorry Seattle Subway, I generally support your ideas, but on this one, you're wrong. Streetcars in downtown Seattle are not the right fit. It's a shame that it's taken this long for someone to step up and try to stop it, since as you note contracts are signed and it's gonna cost us, but this is the kind of project that does need to be stopped. WE've poured money down the streetcar hole, let's not keep filling it with more. Our fighting for such an obviously misguided system is exactly why transit haters keep having such convincing arguments for so many. Let it go and let's move on.
6
All these people criticizing the streetcar are totally missing the point. The Center City Connector was designed to correct the problems you identify with the SLUT and the First Hill lines. And by connecting those two isolated lines the CCC will help boost ridership throughout the system. Folks here are trying to sound smart in their attacks on transit but show themselves to be morons by not actually assessing the CCC at all. This is just anti-transit ideology wrapped up in concern trolling.
8
Also, are you kidding me that the SR99 tunnel didn't face any opposition? We only voted on it like 5 times and McGinn wasted most of his political capital in his first two years in office fighting it.

But I agree with @6: You need to finish the system for it to fully yield. Also, if they do end up tolling cars in the center of the city, then the Streetcar is going to look a lot different, because there may be less cars downtown and the existence of the streetcar would be trotted out as a justification for why it's okay to toll the cars. In fact, the tolling revenue will probably be used to fund the Streetcar.
9
@6 How does it 'correct the problems' of the other two lines? By connecting them? Those aren't the problems. The primary problem is the existing streetcars are way too fucking slow.

I am with the prevailing opinion here. Huge proponent of public transit, rail in particular, and willing to pay up, but the street cars here are a major disappointment. Thing is, street cars work fine in European cities. I would say this has to do with 3 things: they often have dedicated lanes, traffic signals are often synced with them and they go a lot faster. I think a big problem with our system is a ludicrously over the top concern with safety. It does not seem like the street cars ever even get close to the actual speed limit, often stop at yellow lights and at the slightest hint of some impending obstruction and so on. The city needs to study how they work in places where they are successful and attempt to fix these issues.
10
Tourists have a hard time understanding transit between Seattle Center, Pike Place and Pioneer Square. If we connected the two existing lines, the amount of tourists who can get from major tourist destination to the next on the streetcar would increase exponentially. Maybe Durkan wasn't worried about angering transit advocates because they didn't vote for her in the first place. I actually thought she was doing a decent job so far, but this type of shit will guarantee that she will not get my vote next go round.
11
"But when designed and operated correctly—and connected to robust regional rail and local bus service—streetcars can be a critical part of a city’s public transit system."

A couple big caveats, that are the crux of Durkan stopping the project and this article does nothing to address.
12
@10 So, you want to spend $177 million in construction costs, and then an additional $24 million in annual operating costs to help dumb tourists figure out how to visit sites that are less than a mile apart, and already easily accessible on existing public transit?
14
@11 yes
15
@2 the operations cost politics are really interesting to me. SDOT contracts with King County for its drivers and maintenance crews. And it's King County that says they underestimated operations costs. There are certainly come conflict of interest in setting those prices and hours.
16
@13 Please cite your source on that "fact". Last time I did the math, the SLU streetcar provided almost as many boardings per mile as our very successful light rail. Though that was before U-link opened, so it's probably behind now. But I find it strange that everyone agrees the SLU streetcar's ridership is terrible without ever citing actual ridership.
17
@16 To be fair, it's really hard to get any data out of the city. Case in point, here's the link to Seattle Streetcar ridership data (you'll get an error message): https://performance.seattle.gov/dataset/…

Also, boardings per mile is a dumb metric. SLUT gets around 1750 riders per month; Link gets over 71,000 per day. Surely you aren't suggesting that these numbers are remotely comparable?
18
My biggest question about all of this is how much future federal money is in jeopardy. I am also a transit advocate with serious doubts about the viability/efficiency/adaptability of a streetcar, and hate the danger that their tracks pose to people riding bikes. That said, if cancelling the project now would mean forfeiting the next decade of federal funding for rapidride expansion, lids on I-5, decongestion pricing, sidewalk installation, bridge replacement/maintenance, etc, I am all for just building the thing and getting over it. It if turns out to be underused and too expensive to run, we can always abandon it. I'm tempted to agree with the author of the article that the time for debate over utility/cost effectiveness is long past, but it would be really nice to know what cancelling (or potentially redirecting money to a rapidride equivalent) would mean for future grant money. It certainly isn't worth sacrificing a main source of infrastructure revenue just to spare us from some misguided decisions of past mayoral administrations. Does anyone have more stories from cities that have turned back federal streetcar money (or changed them to bus lines)? Cincinnati's story about not getting TIGER grants seems pretty grim.

as an aside, it's also worth noting that a contract had not been signed for the construction of the streetcar. The utility work that is now in progress appears to have been bid/contracted separately from the actual streetcar tracks. I don't know about the car purchases, but I'm pretty sure the motivation to "press pause" now was to avoid opening the city up to further legal issues after signing a construction contract.
19
@16

Here is the city's ridership data for the streetcars, showing steady decline of the SLU line (the city attributes this to congestion) and the low ridership of the First Hill line (projected ridership was 5k/day).

The graph is a little confusing, I believe it's showing average daily ridership for each month. I arrived at 5k/day for FH projected ridership by taking the 2016 projection of 1.2 million riders for the line, then dividing by the number of months the streetcar was active that year (8) times 30 days/mo.
20
Bah, maybe this will fixie linkie to the ridership chart? Apologies for that.
21
The case against Streetcars is pretty straightfroward:

Vehicle Cost: a Streetcar cost more than a Bus, and requires more specialized maintenance.

Infrastructure Cost: Streetcar rails and specialized signalization are an expensive added cost to existing roads and signals used by buses.

Route Flexibility: Streetcars are stuck on rails, while buses can be easily rerouted.

Route Reliability: Streetcars can be blocked by a poorly parked car, vehicles obstructing intersections, etc. while buses can usually maneuver around obstructions.

Speed: Streetcars are slower than buses.

Safety: in-street rails pose additional hazards to cyclists over non-railed roads used by buses.

Is there any single way in which a Streetcar is a better investment than a bus?

Sure, you could put a Streetcar on a dedicated right-of-way (which basically turns it into light-rail), but for the same cost you could pave a dedicated right-of-way for buses which would be less expensive in terms of infrastructure and vehicle costs, plus have vehicles that can be repurposed as needed.

It's not that I'm a huge fan of buses. They have their limitations, principally getting stuck in traffic, and I really wish we had a comprehensive mass rapid-transit system consisting of multiple interconected grade-separated routes.

But Streetcars???

The first one was a stupid idea. More streetcars is just more stupid.
22
@20 thanks
@17 "SLUT gets around 1750 riders per month" Where do you get these things? It gets about 2,000 riders per day. And riders per mile is a great number. We pay per mile for construction, plus I care more about how many trips we serve than how far commuters commute from.

Assuming your 71k number is right, that's 3,230 rides per mile. SLU Streetcar would be about 1,500 rides per mile. So under half now that U-link is opened, but not too shabby considering how much cheaper per mile a streetcar is compared to a tunneled or elevated light rail line.

I'd say our streetcars are quite successful.
23
@21 Well there's certainly a case for street cars as well. For instance: buses suck and the experience of riding a street car is considerably superior. Also, accessibility.

Again, they work rather well in Europe. Why don't they here? Primary reason: too slow. Primary reason it seems they are too slow is safety hysteria rules in this town. Surely they don't have to travel at the speed a person can jog. It is just ridiculous.
24
Cripes, what a stupid article.

First, as other commenters have suggested, if this connection is built, it will never be more than a tourists’ toy. If you’re standing at the streetcar stop by International District station and want to go anywhere between there and Lake Union, you cross the street and use the transit tunnel. Staying on the surface merely wastes your time. Westlake Station is ONE block from the southern terminus of the SLUT.

Second, for all the pointless jabber about construction costs, what is the ongoing cost of permanently removing traffic lanes from the affected streets?

Third, as others have already explained, there’s a huge difference between being in favor of mass transit, and being in favor of connecting two unrelated streetcar lines with a slow link which will make the result unreliable.

Thanks to Mayor Durkan for halting this before we waste any more money on further crippling traffic downtown.
25
I lived in Los Angeles while it was building its own doomed 'subway'. It continues to operate because there's enough created dependency on it that it can't but its in no way fast, functional, or actually goes anywhere except ferrying workers to and from downtown/city hall jobs on the week days and tourists to Hollywood Blvd. It's a ghost ship of sleeping homeless people and transit cops that ignore them in the evenings and weekends.

The cost to construct this incredibly pointless behemoth nearly tanked the city coffers and it caused part of Hollywood to literally sink into the ground, setting off lawsuits and public safety issues that are still not fully resolved today.

The city stuck with it because of all the reasons this article basically sites: contracts, work already down, because they promised. File this under: Sunk Cost Fallacy.

What's worse than having non-functional transit? Pouring city money into pointless transit while doing nothing to deal with the non-functional transit issues that already exist.
26
Where to begin. OK, how about the first sentence:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: After years of ballot measures, public hearings, and studies confirming both public support for a major streetcar project and its viability

Simply untrue. There was no ballot measure for the streetcar. None, zero, zilch. Public hearings? Yeah, sure; like those are representative of the working class, who are the ones that ride transit a lot. Public support? Fuck no. No one likes the streetcar. Half the city council thinks it is stupid.

If you are going to bother to write an article in a major local newspaper, do your fucking homework. Holy shit, it is all on Wikipedia for fuck;s sake. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Lake…

Restoration of rail service on Westlake Avenue was originally envisioned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to help improve the South Lake Union neighborhood, in which his venture capital company, Vulcan Inc., is heavily invested.[8] Allen's main supporter from the beginning was Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, but he was not universally supported by the Seattle City Council, which was concerned about the lack of public support for the line and questioned if it should be moved ahead of Seattle's other transportation needs ... In 2009, election candidates in local Seattle politics, including almost all for city council and both candidates for mayor, said the streetcar was a bad idea.

Now about the First Hill Streetcar, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Hill…

First Hill ... was to be served by a deep-bore Link light rail station as part of the North Link project. Due to high construction and engineering risk, Sound Transit removed the station from the North Link preferred route in July 2005. The First Hill Work Program did a study to evaluate alternative transit options to connect First Hill to the regional transit system. Neighborhood residents, institutions, and business owners strongly preferred a streetcar.[10]

No ballot measure, because a ballot measure would have failed. Give Seattle residents some credit. We know a stupid idea when we see one. There was support by some for the streetcar on First Hill, but most just wanted what Sound Transit said they were going to build -- a fucking light rail station. That didn't happen, so we had that stupid, and now widely unpopular streetcar. How unpopular? Consider the Broadway extension (again, this is from Wikipedia):

The planned extension was halted due to a lack of support from businesses ...

Got that? The same folks that though a streetcar was the way to go a few years ago, now don't want it extended just a little ways, to serve their businesses. So much for the idea that the mayor is killing something that is widely popular.

Again, no ballot proposal. Major opposition to the South Lake Union Streetcar, followed by mere acceptance, as Vulcan paid much of the cost. Local support for the streetcar as mitigation for Sound Transit's fucked up decision to skip First Hill, followed by opposition by those same folks for a simple, relatively cheap extension. Your first sentence contains lies as well as exaggerations. Nice start.
27
(So much bullshit it won't fit in one comment).

The need for high-capacity transit through downtown Seattle has never been greater.

Right. Too bad the streetcar isn't high-capacity. (OK, it is higher capacity than a car, but so is a bus).

Toronto’s proven best practices are already baked into the design of Seattle’s Center City Connector.

Oh, fuck, where to begin. First of all, if Toronto could do it all over again, they would simply use buses. That is why Toronto has repeatedly thought about scrapping the streetcar system, and replacing it with a combination of buses and light rail. But like many cities, it just makes sense to live with what you have, especially since they have a major investment in streetcars and streetcar infrastructure (unlike Seattle).

Toronto is also huge, and flat. I have a feeling you don't know shit about transit in general, or streetcars in particular, so let me explain something. Streetcars -- like all modes of transport -- have their advantages and disadvantages. Jarrett Walker explained the advantages very well, in this essay. They are, in short:

1) Capacity

2) Existing rail rights-of-way.

OK, now, obviously we aren't talking about an existing rail right of way (the tracks aren't there yet). So the only possible advantage is that first one, capacity. That is why your comparison to Toronto is ridiculous. Toronto has way more people than Seattle, and in their central core, orders of magnitude more people, making the case for big streetcars in Toronto a reasonable one. But here is the thing you seem to be ignorant of, or purposely ignoring:

Our buses have the same capacity as our streetcars.

Seriously, do the research, and look at the vehicles. The streetcars we bought (which can be sold to another sucker city by the way) are no bigger than our buses. So even if the route actually was so popular that we needed something bigger than our buses, it wouldn't matter, because the streetcars are the same size.

It really isn't that complicated. @21 is right. The streetcars have several disadvantages (and those aren't even all of them). Some streetcars have advantages, but neither apply to this city. Everything our streetcars can do, our buses can do.

At the same time, the buses can do amazing things, like go up Yesler! or go farther into the neighborhoods! or change their route after someone figured out that the original route, involving a button hook, was stupid! or how about avoid a car inches into its lane, so that the riders can actually get to their destination at a reasonable time? Yes, they can do that too!

The solution is pretty simple. Don't build the stupid streetcar, and put the money into bus service instead.

28
@23 buses suck and the experience of riding a street car is considerably superior. Also, accessibility.

What the fuck are you talking about. In what world is riding a streetcar a better "experience"? Oh, and in what way is a low floor, level boarding bus any different in terms of accessibility?

Holy shit, listen to the fucking experts. There are only two advantages to streetcars: First, they can take advantage of an existing rail right-of-way. Second, if you run a really big streetcar, you can carry more people. The problem is, our streetcars aren't big. Even if they were big, we would need to expand the area where people board, and that would cost a shitload more money. Not that we will ever need that kind of capacity (we aren't Paris). The streetcar does nothing more than a regular bus, except that it does it worse.
29
@22 And riders per mile is a great number.

Not when you have nothing similar to compare it to. Come on, Matt, you are smarter than that. Both streetcars are similar, in that they have things that make their ridership per mile numbers sound good:

1) They don't leave the urban core.

2) They are relatively frequent.

The only bus that is anywhere near as short (and as urban) is the 47. But it runs a lot less often. You really would have to compare this to a subset of routes. For example, does the South Lake Union streetcar carry more people than the northern part of the C (I really doubt it). How does the streetcar on Jackson compare to the 7 on Jackson? How about the 3/4 getting up to First Hill, versus the button hook the streetcar takes? My guess is in all cases, the streetcar is nothing special, and in most cases, lags the other ones.

That is because the route is nothing special. There are some minor differences, between what they do and what buses do (in certain areas) but in general, the buses do more. If I'm at Westlake and want to go up to the Hutch, I can take the 70 or the streetcar. But if want to go a few blocks more on Eastlake, I can only take the 70.

While the South Lake Union streetcar is too short, it at least is a reasonable route. The First Hill streetcar is stupid. The button hook adds considerable time, and means a simple "I want to get from King Street Station to Seattle U" trip is a big pain. It manages to go well out its way to be slow, while simultaneously miss the big hospital destinations that the 60 gets. It is just a poorly designed route, which is one of the many problems with it, and this will also drag down the potential of the extension.

This is something folks haven't talked about. Imagine you are trying to use the *new* streetcar, and want to get up the hill from downtown. If you are headed to Capitol Hill, you'll take Link. If you are headed to Seattle U., you will take Madison BRT, which will be *more frequent* and a lot faster. Heading to Harborview, you are better off taking the 3/4. Heading on Jackson, you are better off taking the more frequent 7. There are really very few *new trips* that are suddenly made better with this connection. Of course the line will be better, but it still won't be that good.

Even for the core, if you want to just go a few blocks north or south (and don't want to bother with the tunnel) it isn't that great. The train is supposed to come every five minutes, but there will be major delays (because both of the existing lines will be delayed). The plan is to overlap the two routes, which means that a streetcar is supposed to start at Pioneer Square five minutes after a streetcar coming from First Hill passes there (going the same direction). But if that First Hill streetcar is five minutes late (which happens all the time) it means that a rider on First Avenue will have to wait ten minutes for a ride. It is much easier to go into the tunnel, or simply walk a couple blocks, and take a bus on Third. There is no waiting at all for those buses, which means it is the obvious choice.

This only makes sense if you are on First, and are simply too lazy to walk a couple blocks (or are one of the existing users, of which there are few). It just isn't a very good route, and choosing an expensive (and inferior) mode is a stupid idea.

30
Just build a proper subway/light rail. Yeah, it's expensive, but we can't afford NOT to do it in the long run. And FFS, DO NOT run it at grade level. The line we have now through the Rainier Valley is glacially slow. The whole point of rapid transit is to get people OUT of traffic.
31
Ross, not everyone can get up and down that hill. But a streetcar is not the answer—a bus would have done just fine. And we had buses, but they got taken away for the streetcar project and now there is nothing. And will probably be nothing for a long, long time.
32
God forbid SDOT learns how to manage a budget.

Would it kill the Stranger to think independently or do they just swallow whatever the establishment at city hall tells them? The bike obsession is an elitist fantasy that hurts Transit and the working class that cannot afford a leisurely fucking bike ride to city hall like the rich white dudes who benefit from it. Removing roadways for the entitled 2% causes gridlock and more pollution but SDOT is too busy swinging from LimeBike's nuts to be honest and the Stranger is too gutless or lazy to counter the dominant narrative.
33
If the Seattle Times was still a real newspaper they would investigate the financial black hole of incompetence that is SDOT. Everyone on here defending SDOT is probably an employee or a contractor benefiting from their corruption.
34
@32: Whining about supposed favoritism to bicyclists in the comments on an article about streetcars just shows yet more of your ignorance. Streetcar tracks and cars pose a huge threat to safety of bicyclists.

But keep on giving us your belief that higher-income commuters are more likely to ride bicycles than take cars. It tells us we can easily ignore the rest of your "facts," too.